Market research is a fundamental of modern business. A company that attempts to bring a product to market without any insight into its customers and competitors isn’t going to be successful.
It wasn’t always like this, though. In the early part of the 20th century, most companies took a “build it, and they will come” approach to product development and sales. In the 1920s, though, Neil McElroy, a marketing executive at Proctor & Gamble determined that marketing would be more effective — and sales higher — if his company learned more about what its customers wanted and needed, and developed products and plans accordingly. Under his direction, P&G began sending out teams of highly trained researchers to knock on doors and talk to “average” housewives about their chores, their favorite products, and what they wanted from soaps and cleaning products.
Thus, the focus group was born — and it has been a staple of market research ever since.
Focus Groups Defined
According to the Marketing Research Association, “a focus group is the meeting of a small group of individuals who are guided through a discussion by a trained moderator (or consultant). The goal of the focus group is to get beyond superficial answers and uncover insights on consumer attitudes and behavior.”
Almost every major corporation in America uses focus groups to conduct qualitative research — the MRA estimates that almost 70 percent of all market research dollars at Fortune 500 companies are spent on focus groups.
The digital world isn’t left out of the focus group fun, either. Not only are focus groups useful for learning more about your customers, but the Internet has made it easier than ever to conduct focus groups. Given that knowing your audience is such an important facet of effective content marketing, it’s actually surprising that more companies don’t take advantage of this highly effective form of research to create better, more relevant content.
Why Focus Group Research Is Relevant to Digital Marketing
Most people think of focus groups as a means of getting feedback on a new product or advertising strategy. After all, who can forget the legendary “Saturday Night Live” sketch featuring Melissa McCarthy as an overenthusiastic consumer of ranch salad dressing?
That same purpose extends to digital marketing as well. Except instead of getting your customers’ feedback on your new salad dressing, you’re learning more about who they are and what they need and want. You’re getting to know your customers, and if there is one rule for effective online content creation, it’s that you must know your customers.
Unfortunately, many marketers confuse knowing who their ideal customers are with knowing who their actual customers are. Developing a customer profile is only half the battle; knowing that your customers are homeowners between ages 34 and 49 with incomes over $100,000 doesn’t really tell you about their pain points or their goals. And the data you gather from your website analytics only tells you part of the story. Analytics can tell you whether the site design and content is appealing enough to retain visitors for a certain amount of time and spur them to make a purchase. But it is simply quantitative data, and to really know who you are dealing with, you need qualitative data. Analytics simply aren’t going to tell you why a visitor came and left your site.
That’s where the focus groups come in. A focus group allows you to collect that qualitative data and ask those deeper questions that get to the heart of why your customers feel and behave the way they do. And according to Hubspot, not only can focus groups help you make your products more appealing to consumers, they can help you improve your content strategy. Asking questions about what they perceive as trends, what they think of your products and your competitors, how they use your products, and what they wish your company would do provides ample fodder for content — just researching and interpreting trends can form the basis of a blog series or eBook.
Advantages of Digital Focus Groups
While focus groups have been proven effective for gathering deep insights for all types of businesses, many companies hesitate to use them. Concerns about cost, study design, and the applicability of the information collected lead many companies to forgo focus groups and rely on their analytics, anecdotes, and assumptions based on sales patterns.
That information is useful, but focus groups help fill in the gaps — and many of the disadvantages of focus groups can be overcome by taking them digital instead. Digital focus groups have several distinct advantages over traditional in-person groups.
- Results are more applicable to online businesses. It only makes sense that when you operate an online business, you want to use digital tools to learn more about your customers.
- Fewer geographic restrictions. When you’re working online, you can gather input from people on both coasts and everywhere in between without incurring travel costs.
- Fewer distracting factors. In a traditional focus group, it’s important to have an effective moderator who can elicit participants’ honest feedback. Unfortunately, human nature takes over in many groups, and participants tend to respond in relation to the other subjects. They might jump on a bandwagon, or hesitate to offer a contradictory or unpopular opinion. But participants can be more anonymous online, and in some cases, even have their responses hidden from the others to better ensue that they are able to be honest and forthcoming with their opinions without undue influence from other participants.
- Larger sample size. Online focus groups can accommodate more participants than traditional groups.
- More flexible tests. When you’re testing a physical product, it’s usually impossible to make changes on the fly to test an alternate configuration or recipe. Online, though, the moderator can make slight tweaks to content in real-time to test participant reactions.
Of course, there are some disadvantages to running focus groups online. The biggest criticism of digital focus groups is that they lack some of the context of an in-person group. Moderators are trained to look for nonverbal cues like changes in expression or body language, or the tone of someone’s voice, to know when to dig deeper. Online groups lose some of that context, but that can often be overcome by using webcams.
Some marketing experts think that the days of focus groups are over completely, at least when it comes to digital marketing, thanks to A/B testing. It’s true that A/B testing is a fast, cheap, and easy way to gauge the effectiveness of certain aspects of your Web marketing, but again, it’s merely quantitative and doesn’t provide any real insights into your customers’ hearts and minds. A/B testing is best used once you know who your buyers are and what they need and want and you’re looking to tweak small aspects of your campaign to achieve the greatest effect.
Finally, focus group detractors like to point out that the potential online audience is huge, and there is no way that a company can truly pull a representative sampling of their customers. To that, the only possible response is to point out that no business is trying to reach every single person who uses the Internet (well, except maybe social media sites). Attempting to do so is foolhardy, and therefore, most businesses are able to pull a decent representative sampling of their target audience for an effective focus group.
Ways to Conduct Online Focus Groups
The flexibility of online focus groups is one of their major advantages. Unlike traditional focus groups, which tend to take place in nondescript conference rooms, digital groups can follow one of several formats — some companies even use several means to gather additional data for use in developing buyer personas and effective content.
Some of the more common ways that companies conduct online focus groups include:
- Webcam interviewing. Participants may be interviewed using split-screen technology so they can see each other. This is the closest to a traditional focus group.
- Sample environment or usability tests. In these types of groups, participants are given a sample product to look at or test while the moderator gauges their reactions and asks questions. These type of groups may be used to test the launch of a new website or application, for example.
- Online discussion groups. Many companies maintain online forums or discussion groups to solicit feedback and input from customers. Overstock.com is one company that puts this type of testing to use. A select group of customers receive regular invitations to complete surveys, and have access to a dedicated forum where they can answer the company’s specific questions about particular products and services.
- Social media. Some companies have turned to Twitter and Facebook to gauge reaction to ad campaigns or new products from average consumers. Volvo, for example, created a Twitter chat specifically for the purpose of measuring customer reaction to an upcoming ad campaign.
The type of focus group you choose depends largely on your research goals, your product, and the type of feedback you’re hoping to elicit. Social media focus groups, for example, will provide more anecdotal evidence than webcam interviews where you can more effectively direct the conversation and elicit the exact information you need.
Online Focus Group Best Practices
Regardless of the type of focus group you choose, adhering to certain best practices will ensure that the data you gather is accurate and usable.
First, know your research goals. Are you trying to elicit specific feedback on a product or simply learn more about your customers? Knowing your goals allows you to choose the right format, questions, and sample.
Also, never underestimate the importance of a good moderator. Work with a moderator who has experience conducting focus groups in a digital environment. Online focus groups present unique challenges, but an experienced moderator will know strategies for effectively managing groups in this format.
It’s also important to screen participants in online focus groups as carefully as you would for an in-person group. Asking potential participants the right questions up front ensures you will have an appropriate sample. The only exception is the use of social media groups. It’s all but impossible to screen participants for those groups. However, as Volvo found, Twitter chats and other online conversations are useful for determining consumer opinion about and marketing and fine-tuning campaigns; in fact, the company cancelled one planned advertisement based on early feedback via Twitter.
Digital focus groups also need the same well-defined discussion guides as in-person groups. Participants should know the exact purpose of the conversation, with a minimum of clarification, before the group begins. This helps save time and prevents getting off topic. Discussion questions also need to be carefully designed to avoid leading participants toward a desired response while also eliciting the desired information.
The most useful focus group research isn’t a one-time event. The Web is constantly changing, and your customers’ needs are constantly changing. The focus group research you do today may be out of date next year and useless in five years. You need to understand how your users’ needs change over time so you can stay ahead of the curve and continue to provide useful content that resonates. Including focus groups in your market research plans is a smart, efficient, and effective way of accomplishing this important task.